All Americans Deserve Clean Air to Breathe, On Earth Day and Every Day

U.S. DOT asks if we should measure global warming pollution from transportation.

Sean Doyle

Today is Earth Day, the one day each year where we coalesce around the problems our environment faces and the solutions we have to protect the natural world and public health. So it’s fitting that today, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is asking whether we should measure the carbon pollution impacts of local and state transportation plans. The answer is yes.

Acting on transportation pollution will save lives and benefit our health. In fact, transportation is the single largest source of air pollution in the U.S. That pollution already causes 53,000 premature deaths every year in the U.S. alone, according to a study from MIT.2 Reducing transportation-related emissions could consequently save hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in health care costs.3

There is also no path to successfully combatting climate change that doesn’t involve substantially reducing transportation-related emissions. The transportation sector accounts for nearly one third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and is the second largest source of emissions behind electricity generation.4 However, unlike electricity, where significant resources have gone into transitioning to cleaner sources, transportation has received little attention relative to its share of the problem. That means that there is a lot of untapped potential to dramatically reduce pollution which will benefit our health and environment.

Today is the start of a 120-day public comment period on a U.S. DOT rule about whether transportation planners should factor pollution, including carbon pollution, into their plans.5 As we’ve said, we think the answer has to be yes. In fact, there are states and cities across the country that are already measuring and actively working to reduce emissions from transportation. California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Seattle, Chicago, and Minneapolis are among the places already acting and setting examples for how this can be done.6

Despite the environmental and public health costs, there are voices opposed to measuring and reducing carbon pollution. Already, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association has come out opposing this proposal.7 There will also likely be opposition from a number of state DOTs that don’t want to be held accountable for the public health and climate impacts of their transportation decisions.

But we know that the American public broadly supports this rule. In fact, most people would probably be surprised to hear that most state DOTs and local transportation planning organizations don’t already measure greenhouse gas pollution or set targets for reducing such pollution.

If we are serious about protecting public health and reaching our national climate goals, we have to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from the transportation sector. We applaud the U.S. DOT for starting the conversation on this issue and support a final rule requiring all local transportation planning organizations to measure and work to reduce emissions from transportation.

All Americans deserve clean air to breathe and a transportation system that is clean and efficient, on Earth Day and every day of the year.

1 Union of Concerned Scientists, “Cars, Trucks, and Air Pollution,” December 5, 2014.
2 Atmospheric Environment Journal, “Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005,” May 31, 2013.
3 Nature Climate Change, “Climate and health impacts of US emissions reductions consistent with 2 °C,” February 22, 2016.
4 U.S. EPA, “U.S. Transportation Sector Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” March, 2015.
5 U.S. DOT, “FHWA Proposes New Performance Measures to Reduce Congestion on the Nation’s Highways,” April 18, 2016.
6 NRCD, “Obama Administration Floating Bold Idea to Reduce Transportation Pollution,” April 18, 2016.
7 Streetsblog USA, “U.S. DOT Wants States to Disclose Climate Impact of Transportation Projects,” April 18, 2016.


Sean Doyle